Unlikely Collaboration: Gertrude Stein, Bernard Fay and the Vichy Dilemma

The actions of a Jewish gay icon in wartime France were iffy, not treacherous, argues Matthew Feldman

December 22, 2011

Gertrude Stein: canonical modernist, gay icon, apostate Jewish-American exile in France, salon favourite, literary genius - and wartime collaborator? If the charge's improbability is registered by Barbara Will's title, her strong analysis of Stein's lurch to the right between the wars makes the case seem more plausible. In the interwar flight from democracy, it was both the masses and intellectuals who deserted, and Stein's reactionary politics were no exception, even if her experimentalism simultaneously achieved public recognition with The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas in 1933 and Everybody's Autobiography four years later.

A resident of France since 1903, Stein formed a friendship with the royalist reactionary Bernard Faÿ, an American historian and one-time leading intellectual in both countries, and they established a formidable alliance and mutual influence during the tumultuous 1930s. Traced out across the book's first 100 pages of useful background, this leads to the pièce de résistance in chapter four - already announced in the opening paragraph - "a propaganda project in support of Vichy France that Stein began in 1941, one she hoped somehow to sell to a skeptical American public".

While recognising that "collaboration is a serious charge", Will willingly deploys it in discussing what she calls Stein's "heartfelt" and "dogged" Pétainism. And withstanding caveats - Stein's portrait-text, Picasso, for instance, was placed on the Vichy regime's 1943 "Otto list" of repressed texts - this "gray zone" of Stein's putative collaboration is the core argument presented here. While smoke from Stein's anti-democratic and frankly naive politics trails unmistakably across the first three chapters, there is little new evidence offered thereafter of a modernist idol catching fire amid the inferno of Nazism's "New Order".

Just what did Stein get up to? Little, it seems, in terms of actual collaboration. There was her disastrous article, "The winner loses: a picture of occupied France", published in The Atlantic Monthly some six years before she died, and some six years after recommending Hitler - probably ironically - for the 1934 Nobel Peace Prize. Yet the promissory fire of Stein's wartime collaboration never appears here. Only a handful of pages are devoted to the purportedly damning documents: "180 pages - the bulk of Pétain's book", Paroles Aux Francais, Messages et Ecrits: 1934-1941, which Stein translated, alongside her 110-line introduction to that book "for everybody in America to realize...he had to defend his armistice as he had defended Verdun, and he did". The problem is that these two quotations are taken, respectively, from Richard Bridgman's 1970 book Gertrude Stein in Pieces and a 1995 reproduction of Stein's introduction; in short, this information has long been available.

Unnecessary psychologising and repetition in chapter five also mean that vital questions remain unanswered: why this book, and for whom? Which particular speeches of Pétain's were translated by Stein, and which explicitly espoused anti-Semitism? In fact, in one of the more troubling tangles, it is not clear from Will's text whether Stein's last translations "of approximately the first half of the fifty speeches published" were from August 1941 or from Pétain's 1940 Christmas address. Ultimately, even if readers must adjudge for themselves, it must be asked: do 33 unpublished texts - 32 Pétain translations and an introduction, none published in Stein's lifetime - constitute a "gray zone", or any "zone" at all, of wartime collaboration?

Will is at her best in the final two chapters on the later life and crimes of Faÿ. If Stein had an iffy war, Fay had a shocker. His was collaboration pure and simple: bending the ear of the Marshal; dictatorship of the Bibliotheque Nationale; an anti-Masonic crusade that doubtless left blood on his hands, and more. If anything, Faÿ got off easily, with five years served from 1946, a prison break and eventual pardon in 1959, and all of this makes for a fascinating epilogue to Will's book.

Faÿ changed markedly during the war - especially regarding his views on Americans - but Stein, it seems, remained reactionary and opportunistic. Her paean to the freedom ushered in by American GI liberators, in light of Will's analysis of Stein's previous quarter century of political engagement, now looks rather unconvincing. But then, so too is the central argument in this very nearly excellent book. Still, there is enough here, and enough questions linger, to make prophetic Stein's observation in her wartime allegory, Mrs Reynolds, "The past was never past enough".

Unlikely Collaboration: Gertrude Stein, Bernard Fay and the Vichy Dilemma

By Barbara Will

Columbia University Press 320pp, £24.00

ISBN 9780231152624

Published 13 September 2011

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